Interpreting Story Prompts

Happy New Year, reader! Yes, you! I hope your end-of-the-year festivities were great, however you personally define the word. Mine would best be described as unexpectedly tiring followed by pleasantly relaxing. But now, on to the post.

As you’ve may have noticed by reading past stories of mine, I’ve mostly been writing flash fiction based on prompts. When that’s the case, it means those stories are necessarily being read at the same time as others that share at least a few similarities.

Stories generally begin as some sort of idea. It could be a character, a plot, a setting, a scene, or countless other concepts, but there’s generally some seed of an idea that grows and/or combines with other ideas to develop into a complete story.

When I first began writing stories based on prompts, I interpreted those prompts as this core idea. The stories I wrote were often the first ones that came to mind based on the prompt. And I think that was a perfectly serviceable way to write, and was pleased enough with those stories even though they weren’t being selected for publication.

Then I received a comment on one story that helped me rethink these prompts. In this case, the prompt (how many times am I going to say that word in this post?) was to take a classic story and reimagine it in a different setting. I wrote a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, placing it on an alien planet and casting the Tom Robinson character as an “otherworlder” (Scout was also called Cadet).

It didn’t get selected, but I did get solid feedback on it. And one comment in particular stood out to me: “Unfortunately we received a lot of sci-fi retellings and only had room for a few.”

Getting that note helped me view my story a different way. I figured my story was written decently enough that it wasn’t rejected outright, but still wasn’t strong enough to compare with other sci-fi retellings. In my head, it wasn’t being compared to all the submissions, but primarily other sci-fi stories written for this prompt.

This totally reframed the way I wrote most of my following submissions. From that point forward, I tried to think of the least likely interpretation of a prompt, and craft a story around that premise. For example, an ancient history romance prompt led to a story taking place in the Maya civilization. A mythical clash featured creatures battling with wits instead of brawn.

You haven’t read those stories … but hopefully you’ve read a couple others that grew out of that thought process. When I imagined a prompt about medieval characters would lead to a bunch of stories set in Europe, I thought about Marco Polo and wrote “The Journal of Wonders.” When one prompt asked writers to combine several holidays, I figured Chinese New Year would be an uncommon choice and wrote “Lunar Eclipse.” I like to think they were selected for more reasons than simply being different, but I’m sure that helped!

I want to acknowledge that none of this is new. Writers have been putting unique spins on concepts for centuries (and doing it a lot better than me). We’re supposed to transform the normal into the unexpected. That said, getting that specific feedback on my To Kill a Mockingbird retelling helped me consciously reframe prompts not as the seed for a story, but rather a seed for how to start thinking about a story. A subtle difference, but one that I’m trying to keep in mind with future submissions.

This takes a little more brainstorming time (at least in my experience). And while I’m in the midst of it, I still find myself fighting the urge to default to a certain interpretation. Plus, I’m still concerned that one day I’m going to bend the prompt so far that it breaks, rendering the story out of scope for a particular theme. And I’m already struggling with situations dealing with more generic prompts like sci-fi or dystopia (especially with tight word counts).

Needless to say, different prompts will lend themselves to this train of thought to varying degrees. Theoretically speaking/typing, there’s ways to play with things like genre conventions, the writing itself, or other elements of the story. I don’t know if those can be defined as creative choices directly inspired by a prompt, but it’s an intriguing exercise to think about.

I’m sure that plenty of other writers who’ve submitted stories based on prompts have considered this. Nevertheless, it was the topic that came to me this week, and it seemed like a nice way to begin 2018. Plus I’m glad to be starting the year with a longer post. Hopefully there’ll be even more to come. And let me know if you have any thoughts on this, or prompts in general!

2017 Year in Review

We’re just a few short days away from a new year, which is always a good time to reflect on the past year. So settle in for my 2017 Year in Review.

About 14 months ago, I resolved to take my writing more seriously. I began writing flash fiction and submitting to Splickety, using their prompts and deadlines as motivation to actually write and finish some stories. And I’m happy to say that looking back on 2017, there’s been some great results.

Even though the main focus of this post looks at my writing/reading through a quantitative lens, I know that writing should ultimately be judged on quality. But that doesn’t detract from the satisfaction of attaching a number to these somewhat arbitrary-yet-related data points and using that to measure my commitment over the past year.

And with that caveat, here are the numbers:

  • Words written (stories, blog posts, and book reviews): 15,301*
  • Stories written: 9
  • Stories submitted: 8
  • Stories published(!): 2
  • Blog posts published: 16 (counting this one)
  • Books read: 17

*As a marketing writer, I’ve certainly written more than this, but this number just measures words related to creative writing.

There you have it — my creative writing stats from 2017! Probably the craziest surprise of the year was being super blessed and humbled to see two stories published by Splickety. (I almost feel like that’s a bonus stat since it’s not something I have total control over.) If you haven’t yet, do check out “Journal of Wonders” on their website and “Lunar Eclipse” in their October issue (also on Amazon)!

Even starting this blog has been a great experience, both in terms of motivating me to write something (however small) every week and tinkering around with building a website. I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues to evolve in 2018 — as long as it takes a backseat to actual writing.

It’s been quite a year of change, and I hope it’s just the beginning of a long, fun journey. So many friends (and especially my loving, long-suffering wife) have encouraged me in this, and I’m honored and grateful to have received so much support. And of course, I want to you thank YOU for reading this blog post as I continue to figure all this out. 2018 looks like it’s going to be pretty interesting.

See you then!

The Journal of Wonders

Let me start off this post about a short story . . . with a short story. A few months ago, I submitted a flash fiction* piece to Splickety’s “Medieval Mayhem” issue that I was really proud of. The prompt was to write a story set in medieval times that incorporated real historical figures or public domain characters from that period (King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.). I brainstormed ideas and eventually came up with an angle that I thought might set it apart from other submissions. So I wrote it, sent it off, and waited.

They responded a few weeks later. They didn’t accept it for publication, but they did provide super encouraging feedback. So I moved on to the next prompt.

A few months after that, I received an email practically out of the blue from Splickety asking if they could feature the story on their blog! Of course I said yes. So I incorporated their feedback and sent it off once again. A few weeks later . . . they posted it! And thus “The Journal of Wonders” became my first published story. As for how it incorporates the medieval theme, you’ll have to read it to find out. To whet your appetite, here’s the first line:

I do not, as a rule, take kindly to shoppers who only look, never buy. But in this case, I studied this customer as much as he studied my wares. Fair skin is no common sight in Hormuz, and I wanted an opening to engage him.

Intrigued? Keep reading on Splickety’s Lightning blog! Enjoy!

*Flash fiction: Very short stories, in this case <700 words